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Climbing in Grand Teton

The thunderstorm was scored brilliantly. Pelting sleet drummed the roof of the climbers' hut while echoing thunderclaps underscored the sky-cracking lightning bolts. The mid-summer fury surely would have awakened me ... if I had been asleep.

But I was surrounded by 17 other climbers who, like me, had been shoe-horned into the hut shoulder-to-shoulder and head-to-foot. Plus, those aspiring climbers had bellies fueled with freeze-dried meals that, after several hours of ruminating, produced a staccato of flatulence that, mingled with snoring, never really allowed sleep to set in for long.

Scrunched together as we were in the hut on the Lower Saddle between the Grand Teton and Middle Teton, the driving storm outside and the human concerto within left me no option but to somehow numb my brain to the wrong steps I might make during the final ascent to the top of the Grand and figure out how to sleep.

Of course, just as I managed to dose off, the guides roused us all at 2:30 a.m. so we could toss down a bite of food, rig our gear, and head to the mountain top.

Scaling "the Grand," that picturesque mountain that hangs over Jackson along with its battleship-gray sisters, was a ridiculous thought that found harbor in the back of my mind in the spring of 1985 when I first glanced up at the peak.

An Easterner by birth, this was a breathtaking, and incredibly tall, mountain. But climb it? Not only was I most comfortable with both feet firmly planted flat on the ground, but the thought of only a thin rope and a precarious hand- or toe-hold between me and an incredible long way down scared the hell out of me, quite frankly.

Yet here I was, crouched in a tent at 11,650 feet, hoping to convince my bloodshot eyes, between bites of oatmeal, to be saddled with contact lenses after a night of fitful sleep. If that weren't enough, Christian Santelices, a guide who would try to coax me and two others to the top, dropped by to say he wanted me to "clean" the route on the way up. In other words, I would pluck the gear --chocks, carabineers, cams and anything else he figured it would be wise to jam into the mountain in the name of an anchor -- before moving on up the peak.

"No problem," I heard myself say, squinting while one eye cried out against the contact and squeezed out a tear or two while the other lens perched precariously on a fingertip. "No problem," I told myself, convinced I had just become a meaningful member of the climbing team after just two days of climbing school instead of just another 180-pound deadweight tied off to the rope’s tail.

While pondering this promotion as I finished my oatmeal and slithered into my climbing harness in the pre-dawn darkness, the Grand waited outside. The mountain is an incredible magnet, to climbers and non-climbers alike. It's the biggest stop sign in the West, no matter from which direction you first spy it. Along with the Middle Teton and South Teton, the Grand scrapes the sky with its distinctive "horn," a constant reminder of the glaciers that helped mold the horizon.

Along with a dozen or so other neighboring peaks that rise above 10,000 feet, the Tetons form a ponderous, jagged stretch of rock that is the Lower 48's most arresting mountain range. The soul of Grand Teton National Park, the Grand harbors world-class climbs. Some tackle the mountain on their own, while neophytes such as myself are herded ever upward under the watchful guidance of one of Jackson's two resident climbing outfitters, Exum Mountain Guides and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.

As one who skis down mountains, hikes over them and admires them from a distance, not one accustomed to hanging from them, I was perfectly willing to be led up the Grand while tethered to a rope.

Shortly before 4 a.m., armed with ice axes and crampons, dressed more for mid-winter than mid-July, and roped together in small groups, we began the nearly three-hour grunt to the Upper Saddle via the aptly named Idaho Express. A ridiculously steep snow-filled couloir that skitters away from the summit to the southwest, the Express would, quite unceremoniously and no doubt fatally, deposit you in Idaho if you lost your footing and couldn't halt the inevitable slide.

I tried not to dwell much on that possibility as we made our way up the Express, except when it came time to clean Christian's gear. That was when the climbers ahead of me, unaware of my prestigious janitorial job -- one that necessitated that I stop and occasionally remove my gloves to pluck a precious piece of hardware from the mountain and attach it to the sling across my chest -- continued on and nearly jerked me right out of the deep sink holes their feet had left in the snow.

To Christian, a muscular climber who moves as smoothly up a rock face as I do across my front yard, one who splits his climbing year between the North America's Sierras and Tetons and South America's Patagonia, the climb was another day at the office. Moving steadily and seemingly effortlessly ever upward with a clanging string of carabineers, chocks and cams around his chest and a rope riding on his shoulder, the Exum guide is a climber by avocation as well as vocation. Although he holds a degree in anthropology, the world's mountains hold his heart.

"A lot of the people it seems are very intrigued by the Grand Teton itself, and just want to get to the summit of the Grand Teton," he says when talk turns to the sort of fellow who scales the mountain. "They're not necessarily climbers, or want to be climbers. They come to this valley and see this big, beautiful mountain and say, 'Wow! I want to get to the top of that.'"

He aptly described myself and John McKenzie, a real estate developer from Madison, Wisconsin, who became my climbing partner at the top of the Idaho Express when one of his friends, who had come directly from California's coast to make the climb, decided there wasn't enough oxygen to fill his sea-level lungs.

After a short break to reorganize our gear, Christian led the two of us out and up across the snow and rock from the Upper Saddle. Now some 500-600 feet below the summit, he was determined to reach the top relatively soon so we could enjoy the view in what would prove to be a very small window of good weather.

In truth, the climb of the Grand is more of a long hike than a technical climb, one that demands more endurance and high-elevation acclimation than technical know-how and daring. Each year roughly 2,500 set their sights on reaching the top, and nearly three-fourths of them succeed, according to the National Park Service. Still, getting to the top has its moments.

At one point Christian led us across the "belly roll," a preposterously exposed, triangular-shaped chunk of rock overhung by a protruding slab that measures your fear of heights by requiring you to balance your weight, and life, on a toe-wide lip of rock.

While Christian slithered across this as though he were crossing the street, John put more thought into where he placed his hands and toes. Although retreat seemed like the best option to me, I had no choice but to follow since the end of the rope was anchored to my climbing harness. Halfway across, defying my acrophobia by refusing to enjoy the 1,500-foot view directly beneath my feet and instead eyeing the end of the traverse, I encountered a dilemma when I dropped one of Christian's $80 cams.

The good news was that it didn't fall off the mountain. The bad news was that I would have to take one of my hands off the rock and reach down to my feet, where the cam rested atop one foot, to retrieve it. It was a task made only slightly more difficult by the fact that gusting winds prevented John from hearing my pleas that he give me "rope" instead of keeping tension on it.

Surprising myself by grabbing the cam without plunging off the mountain, my jubilation was cut short when I joined John on a tiny ledge of ice-covered rock at the bottom of a series of chimneys funneling steady flows of snowmelt. Somewhere up ahead was Christian, who usually was out of sight, two "pitches," or rope lengths, ahead of me, with John sandwiched between us.

With the rising wind, it was hard to communicate climbing commands, and at times I found myself debating whether I really heard the word "climb," proof that John was ready to safely belay me as I scrambled up a chimney or across a rockface.

Finally, more than two hours after we left the Upper Saddle, we followed footprints in the snow from the week's previous parties and arrived at the summit just after 9:30 a.m.

Spread before, and below, us was one of the world's great geologic classrooms. Although the Tetons are one of the youngest ranges in the Rocky Mountains, their geology is one of the most varied among the world's mountainous regions. Vast inland seas, periodic volcanics, deep glaciations and geologic machinations all played a role in defining the landscape that today retains those events in fossilized plant and dinosaur remains, thick sedimentary rocks, stunning peaks and U-shaped canyons. It was a vast glaciation that arrived 150,000 years ago with rivers of ice 3,000 feet thick that sculpted the mountains with cirques and cols and created the Tetons' defining pyramid-shaped peaks, or "glacial horns."

As the glaciers retreated, they left behind morainal lakes and kettles -- depressions created when blocks of ice calved from the retreating glaciers. Skillet, Teton and Schoolroom glaciers remain today, vestiges of their "Little Ice Age" forefathers of 5,000 years ago.

Geology aside, the abruptness with which the Tetons climb out of the valley, their easy access, and the countless climbing opportunities, combine to define the range as one of mountaineering's classics.

"When Teddy Roosevelt first saw it -- and he'd been all over the world -- he said they were the only mountains he'd ever seen that looked like mountains should look," the late Paul Petzoldt, a native Idahoan who first reached the summit as a gutsy 16-year-old in 1924 and went on to become one of the country's foremost mountaineers, told me shortly after I completed my climb. "I know of no other place in the world where you drive by all the way along the base of those mountains in Jackson Hole on the highway and you see those mountains there without one foothill.

"Bang! Right up there, 7,000 feet above the valley. And that's impressive, because people don't see things like that."

Finally standing atop the hulking, 13,770-foot-tall crag, having gazed up at the crooked peak so many times over the years like so many millions of others who had strained their necks to take full measure of the peak known as America's Matterhorn, it was good to finally look down from the Suburban-sized summit. Knee-deep in the snow, with an anchored ice axe firmly clenched in my right hand, the panorama was spectacular, if not particularly comforting for one who gets dizzy at the top of a ladder.

But with the granitic mountain firmly beneath me, the Jackson Hole Valley stretching north-to-south in front of me and Idaho to my back, the dizziness took a day off.

Despite the snow and ice that still clung to portions of the mountain while the valley floor basked in 80-degree warmth, the few tremulous moments I encountered on the climb to the top slipped away. Perched there beneath a cloudless cobalt sky, with the shimmering waters of Jackson and Jenny lakes far below to the east and still-snow-capped peaks dominating the views to north, south and west, knowing that so many others had been struck by the same view didn't lessen the achievement.

"How could you not want to climb that thing?" John asked after we had returned to the rocky, windblown Lower Saddle that's strung between the Grand and its little sister, 12,804-foot Middle Teton. "It's a breathtakingly beautiful and a rare vista that means more because you've done it."

Grand Teton National Park

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide